The use of technology in government is all too often relegated to simply making business as usual more efficient, or improving co-ordination between and across the arbitrary divisions of the public sector. Rarely has it managed to achieve the type of fundamental re-engineering of public services typical of modern digitally-enabled organisations, despite a long-held desire to do so.
In 1998, the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) considered several approaches to the fundamental re-design of government. The most radical option was to follow the example set by business and to re-engineer government departments and agencies around common processes. POST explored whether such transformation should be applied within existing departmental boundaries, across the whole of central government, or spread wider to include other public and private bodies. They also considered new organisational models: for example, remodelling services along process lines, or orientating them around citizens' needs associated with life events.
The underlying ambition has remained much the same ever since: to deliver transformational improvements in the design and operation of public services. This is about far more than serving up paper forms as web pages on a website - as GDS state, it's about "digital services, not websites". The real challenge has never been technology - but how to move successfully from a bureaucracy-centric culture to a service-oriented one.
Doing so requires a transformation in the structures, operations and culture of government. It will necessitate fundamental change in the service design culture of the public sector, creating a bow-wave of improvements that ripple even into the upper levels of the political system to challenge existing assumptions about the functions and structures of the state itself. The OECD describe this process as the transformation of the "... structures, operations and, most importantly, the culture of government. Modernising government ... will have fundamental impacts on how services are delivered, how policies are developed and how public administrations operate".
This move towards service design thinking is not even necessarily an adjunct of the digital movement - better service design need not involve technology at all, but instead brings a long-absent focus on the users of public services and their needs in place of the internal imperatives of the providing organisations. Pioneering initiatives from the "The Public Office" in 2007 to the joint seminar series on "Innovating Through Design in Public Services" hosted by the London School of Economics Public Policy Group and the Design Council in 2010-11 highlighted some of the art of the possible. At last, some of that thinking finally seems to be entering the mainstream.
As the past 20 or so years have so ably illustrated, with their repeated efforts to create common, re-usable infrastructure for cross-government use, technology alone will not bring about the improvements required. The growing recognition of the disruptive power and value of service design thinking shows promising signs of succeeding where previous initiatives have failed. Its emergence needs to be cherished and nurtured - it's an encouraging and significant sign that the riptide of improvements to our public services foreseen by POST could finally begin to happen.